Directed by Peter Lepeniotis, Starring Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, and Liam Neeson
** of 10
The Nut Job, to its credit, is unique among kid’s movies, because it revolves around a completely unlikable character and doesn’t do much to redeem him. That is the only way in which it is unique among kid’s movies. The Nut Job is a dumb assortment of cliches, slapstick, and awful puns. Of all of the shorts to adapt into an animated child’s movie, Surly Squirrel was an odd choice, because it is not for kids in any sense. It’s vulgar, mature, and in that setting having a main character who the audience is not supposed to root for can work. That logic is difficult to apply to a 90 minute kid’s film. The short is nothing too special, truthfully, but the premise is engaging, and that premise remains the best part of the full feature.
The film is about Surly Squirrel, a squirrel who is a lead gatherer of nuts for his tribe of animals living in a park in 1950’s New York. He is ostracized for being mean to everyone and not especially good at his job. He finds a giant supply of nuts, but they are being used as a cover for a mob, who are planning a bank robbery. As the mob enters and steals from the bank, Surly slips in and steals their nuts, indirectly creating problems for the mob, and the two sets of robbers both have to make difficult escapes. It’s an interesting idea, because the animal heist is not only a parallel to the human heist, but it also uses the human heist as its setting. The humans use explosions and get caught in a police chase, and the animals, being small, get caught in the middle of this by accident and have to work around it.
Unfortunately, an intriguing plot can only take a movie so far. The Nut Job is an animated comedy, so the mediocre animation and unfunny comedy are major problems. The animation isn’t the worst thing ever. It’s certainly not good, but I’ve seen worse textures and character models in movies that got theatrical releases. The movement is based on slapstick, like a Looney Tunes cartoon in 3D, and while it is fast enough to make me understand what the animators were going for, in execution the frames have no depth, and the environments are flat. The character design is occasionally ugly or even repulsive, but that is limited to a few side characters. The failure to write a single good joke is much more difficult to offer backhanded praise for. Almost every other line in the entire film is a pun on the word “nut”, even if it barely make sense, like “Nut-lantis”, or “ladies don’t have nuts like us”. It’s juvenile to an obnoxious extent. And other than nut puns, there are absolutely no verbal jokes in the entire film. It’s all slapstick from there. The script is very obviously a 15 minute idea stretched into 80. There is filler galore, most of it serving no purpose except to set up a nut pun.
I would almost give “The Nut Job” credit for it’s period atmosphere, a rarity for G-rated animation, but that idea is undercut about halfway through with a “random” Gangam Style dance break. It is not actually random: the film is a South Korean co-production, and in January of 2014 nothing was bigger in South Korea than Psy. This point, for some ridiculous reason, comes back at the end. The ending credits feature a CGI animated version of Psy doing the Gangam Style dance with the characters from the movie. It’s as weird as anybody could have hoped for it to be. It has nothing to do with anything. I’m not even sure why Psy would have agreed with it, because he certainly didn’t need the exposure. Whatever the motivation, it is a funny moment, in a “so-bad-it’s-good” kind of way.
The slightly disappointing part is that this voice cast is very talented. Will Arnett and Liam Neeson both have prominent roles, and just a month later both would have scene-stealing parts in “The Lego Movie”, and their roles were similar in both (the “good guy” who isn’t a good person and the side villain, respectively). Brendan Fraser is also capable of being funny. But their talents are wasted on a script that is completely without wit. The potential Nut Job sequel is in limbo, apparently being made but currently without a release date. The only thing missing from “The Nut Job” was a better writer. Everything else had a decent foundation to build off of and create a good film. As it is, Surly and his friends come close but miss the mark in every aspect of movie-making.